Mavericks' Luka Dončić is standing on the precipice of greatness that always seemed inevitable

MINNEAPOLIS — As Luka Dončić sat in the small post-game press conference room, the smallest one he will stay in until the end of his season, he placed a trophy on the table in front of him. It was awarded to him after he was voted MVP in the Western Conference finals. The award began with a shiny gold podium supporting the silver sphere on top. He wasn't sure how it would fit in his trophy case, he admitted.

“(It's) going home,” Dončić said, the only destination he was sure of at the moment. “I don't know where yet.”

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Dončić's glowing accolades are too numerous to mention. He has a trophy from Real Madrid's 2018 EuroLeague championship, but none from Slovenia's first-ever EuroBasket victory in 2017. There are countless plaques and medallions, too many to remember, from previous tournaments and finals in which he played long ago. What else did he have in mind? a postgame beerwas not his new metal hunk, but the pursuit of an even more golden one.

On Thursday, in Game 5's 124-103 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Dončić advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time. Along with him came his new teammates, the best he ever had, cementing their transcendent superstar who seemed destined to reach this stage.

Now he has.

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Luka Dončić smiles at his press conference after the Mavericks won the Western Conference finals. (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA Today)

It's been thirteen years since the Dallas Mavericks reached the NBA Finals. Thirteen years since they lifted the crown under Dirk Nowitzki for the first time in franchise history. Thirteen years of toiling in Nowitzki's twilight and then learning to trust Dončić after his arrival. This is Nowitzki's franchise and always will be, but there is no better successor. Not because these two legends are identical – not even close – but because they share one quality: a ruthless winning desire that uplifts everyone around them. What Nowitzki left behind, Dončić continued. Now he's arrived at the same place Nowitzki once took them: to the Finals, against the Boston Celtics, starting June 6.

Dončić didn't watch the NBA Finals growing up. “It was four in the morning,” he said. 'I couldn't do that. I had school the next day.”

But from the opening minutes of Game 5, he left no doubt he would get to his first. He had 10 points in the first three minutes, 15 in the first eight and 20 by the end of the quarter, while the Timberwolves scored just 19 themselves.

“I turn around and he's shooting from half court,” starting midfielder Daniel Gafford said. “I'm like, 'Right now I don't even have to set a screen for you, brother.'”

It was a show of finality that Dončić has shown many times before, most famously against the Phoenix Suns in a closeout Game 7 two seasons ago.

“This one was really close,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “He immediately took the crowd out of the game and let his teammates know it was time.”

Dončić's 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting were matched by his co-star running mate, Kyrie Irving, who had 36 of his own. Irving is the only player on the team who has been to the finals before. Irving is the best player Dončić has ever played with, one who matched him shot for shot in Thursday's closeout win. He made sure that Dončić's growling and shouting eminence was linked to his own steadfast determination. With these two at the top of the team, in matches where they both decide losing is not an option, there is certainty in the results.

The teammates around them – whom Dončić first met twelve, ten or even three months ago – have quickly earned Dončić's full trust on the pitch.

When Dončić becomes unstoppable, his teammates turn into an escalation of his genius. Play him upright and Dončić overcomes whatever high-flying athleticism he lacks with sky-grazing lob passes that send Gafford into the mortal coil of the edge. Pair him with a team, and then there's rookie phenom Dereck Lively II who catches the ball at the free-throw line and swings it to an open teammate – usually PJ Washington or Derrick Jones Jr., two defensive stalwarts who have quickly learned that hesitation is a unnecessary sensation when these deliveries are imbued with Dončić's own confidence in them.

Sometimes Josh Green tries to pass so daringly that you wonder if Dončić might be playing him with puppets if they succeed. At other points, old friends like Maxi Kleber step up with experienced know-how to remind us that Dončić is still a young man of only 25, not even in his prime, despite the fact that teammates are getting older. Even 21-year-old second-year guard Jaden Hardy, who has been resurrected in the past two weeks, walks around with a swagger that must come at least partially from Dončić.

Dončić is always at the helm and is at the helm of this team. His hagiography is earned by nights like this, where there's no way you can look at him and think anything other than he's the best basketball player in the world. Whether he and his teammates are enough at this point to topple the Boston Celtics will be determined. The battle will be fought over seven or six matches, or however many are necessary.

“We're not done here yet,” Dončić said. “We need four more.”

Dončić's trophy case, the one in which he will cram his newly awarded plaque wherever it fits, could use a centerpiece. What Dončić would like to see in that place is the biggest trophy this sport has to offer. He always wanted that from the first moment he entered this league, laden with laurels, that he wanted to surpass.

Now his first chance begins.


Required reading

(Top photo of Luka Dončić and his father, Sasa: ​​David Berding / Getty Images)

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